I’m originally from Michigan, the state that gave President-elect Donald Trump his narrowest election day victory. It was also, to me, his most surprising victory. Michigan hadn’t gone Republican in nearly 30 years, and it’s less white than the night’s other big surprise, neighboring Wisconsin (76.6% non-Hispanic white versus 83.3%).
Wisconsin and Michigan help to make up “the Rust Belt” along with Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa and West Virginia, states that also, not incidentally, went for Trump. (The region also touches on parts of Illinois and New York but not the major population centers, allowing easy Democratic victories in those states.)
I’ve had many conversations with friends and family over the past month about what caused these states to turn so red this election, a conversation millions across the country have had, inside and outside the so-called Rust Belt. There’s been many explanations, and they usually turn toward economic discontent or veiled racism or misogyny. Personally, I’ve never been too convinced by the former theory, mainly because Trump’s primary voters were wealthier than those of the Democratic candidates and wealthier than the average person.
Still, that doesn’t mean that Trump’s voters didn’t perceive that they were economically disadvantaged; some may have even voted hoping to better the lives of their state’s poorer residents.
And Donald Trump, they thought, would better the economic interests of the Rust Belt.
It’s my belief that part of the reason people thought Trump was good for the Rust Belt is this phrase, “Rust Belt.”
Not many pundits give Trump credit for long-term strategy, but let’s just say that he’d be hard-pressed to have picked a better pitch to voters in these crucial states than “Make America great again.” It’s perfectly synchronized with the name “Rust Belt”–both speak to American decay and a desire to return to the past.
Clinton, bless her heart, was determined to run a positive campaign. “America never stopped being great,” she said, which came across as dismissive to voters who saw real problems, or fake problems they perceived as real. (As we all know, in the 21st Century, the line between the two blurs.)
The media, in its reliance on the “Rust Belt” moniker, was doing Trump’s branding for him, spreading his message that jobs have gone oversees, factories have been closed, and the past quarter century has just seen the U.S. regressing, not progressing.
But “Rust Belt” isn’t just pessimistic and nostalgic; it’s exclusionary. These places, the term says, are defined by their failing industries, not by their successful ones and not by their new ones. Obviously, there are innovative companies that employ large amounts of people in all these places, but those get ignored by the name. What matters are the factories and the candidate who has pledged to re-open them no matter what.
All of this is bad news for a candidate who accepts the reality that, because of trade and because of technology, manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back. Whether or not Clinton accepted that reality is another story–her site had a dedicated “Manufacturing” page, along with a “Technology” page and a “Jobs and Wages” page and a “Workforce Skills and Job Training” page and, well, I could go on. (Clinton was truly the Microsoft of candidates.) But no matter how many pages she added to her site, there was no way that she was going to appeal to voters who understood they lived in the “Rust Belt,” at least not the way that Trump could appeal to them.
That’s something else to consider, what it’s like to really understand that you live in “the Rust Belt,” in a region of failure. That’s not good for the soul. It’s even worse to hear someone like Vanderbilt-spawn Anderson Cooper (who seems so nice!) say you live in the Rust Belt, kind of like being described as “from the wrong side of the tracks” and just a shade better than being called “the poors.” It’s very easy for me to understand Trump’s brand of populism through the lens of the term. (Wikipedia, by the way, labels the term as derogatory.)
All of which makes one wonder why reporters ever used the term to begin with when they weren’t doing stories specifically about manufacturing in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and the Midwest. My best idea is that it was linguistically convenient, since this is the only term that combines these different states, which come from different geographic regions, including the Mid-Atlantic and the South. That’s not a very good reason to feed bias into news reporting, of course, and it’s a shame that amid all of these other think pieces on why the media supposedly handed the election to Trump–from covering his tweets to covering the Comey letter–no one has thought to look at the actual words that made up the media reporting.
Words matter: they create ideologies that justify and divvy up power. In 2016, two short words helped make Donald Trump the most powerful man in the world.